K2 Bonatti

by Jonna Jerberyd ©2003

In 1954, the summit of K2 was reached for the first time by the Italians Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni. On the same expedition was a young ambitious climber who was regarded as the superstar of climbing and mountaineering in Italy. This is Walter Bonatti’s version. A version that in 2006 turned out to be the true story as Lino Lacedelli finally confessed that Bonatti was telling the true story. The rest of the expedition members had lied for over 50 years! 

One of the expedition members, Walter Bonatti, tells a different story of what happened on K2. Young Bonatti, aged 24 at the time, was to carry the oxygen bottles together with the Hunza porter Mahdi to Lacedelli and Compagnoni in camp 9. Before reaching the last camp where the two summiteers were waiting in their tent, darkness overtook Bonatti and Mahdi. They called out to Lacedelli and Compagnoni since they could not find the camp, but the latter did not direct them to the camp, neither did they come down to help, instead they shouted from their tent, urging the two carriers to leave the oxygen bottles and return to camp 8. This was impossible in the dark and the blizzard and so Bonatti and Mahdi were forced to bivouac out in the open, without bivouac gear or sleeping bags. As by a miracle, Bonatti survived the bivouac without any injuries while Mahdi suffered frostbite of both hands and feet. The following morning Mahdi started the return to camp 8 and Bonatti followed soon after him, leaving the oxygen bottles. Later Lacedelli and Compagnoni fetched the oxygen bottles from where they had been left. According to them the oxygen ran out halfway, but they managed to reach the summit in spite of this.

After returning to Italy, the expedition in general and Lacedelli and Compagnoni in particular, were looked upon as heroes, but for some reason Bonattis effort to bring up the oxygen bottles and his remarkable bivouac were barely mentioned at all. During the next decade Bonattis part of the expedition was only briefly mentioned if at all by national media. Bonatti himself could find no reason to why his part of the expedition was overlooked and, it seemed, hushed down. Finally, on the tenth anniversary of the summit conquest an article appeared in one of the national newspapers accusing Bonatti of having intended a summit attempt by himself. Furthermore, he was accused of having used the oxygen designated for Lacedelli and Campagnoli during his bivouac; this would be the reason why the summiteers had run out of oxygen before reaching the summit. It turned out this story had been spread within the alpine community in Italy, but in order to keep scandals out of the expedition it had been quieted so efficiently it took a decade before even Bonatti himself was became aware of it through the article.

After these accusations were brought out in the open Bonatti started a lawsuit to clear his name. Eventually the newspaper lost the case. It was established that Bonatti could not have used the oxygen during his bivouac since he and Mahdi did not have oxygen masks in their possession (the masks were in camp 9 with Lacedelli and Compagnoni). Neither had he abandoned Mahdi as was suggested in the article. On the contrary, he had done everything possible to help the Hunza make it through the night while the summiteers in the last camp had refused to come and help them. Although Bonatti was freed from accusations of being a liar and a thief, the court did not determine the true course of actions.

Outside the courtroom Bonatti has for almost half a century maintained his version of the story. He argues that the oxygen bottles could not have run out before Lacedelli and Compagnoli reached the summit. The statement that they couldn’t be bothered to take the empty cylinders off their backs, and instead carried them to the summit, is absurd; the burden of empty oxygen bottles is too heavy to carry climbing in thin air not to be bothered to remove them. Bonatti himself took the full bottle off and on several times without much effort while searching for the last camp. A more significant feature is a photograph taken on the summit where Lacedelli is still wearing his oxygen mask. This clearly points to the fact that there was indeed oxygen left, he would have no reason whatsoever to wear the mask should the bottle be empty; on the contrary, he would have got the feeling of suffocating.

So the Italian success of 1954 remains, but the versions of the preceding events differ. Was it an expedition that succeeded in spite of the betrayal of a young ambitious man, or was it the survival of a young ambitious man in spite of the betrayal of his expedition? Bonatti presents his version of the expedition in his book “The Mountains of My Life”.

– “The only logical deduction is that no one has ever really wanted either to confront or to resolve the whole false history of K2 nor expose the one terrible lie that is also most blatanty obvious.”

– Walter Bonatti
(The mountains of my life)


  1. […] Bonatti also had to live with stupid comments about him: On page 242 in the 1981 edition of Quest for Adventure and on page 343 in the 1982 edition by Chris Bonington: ‘He still climbs, but with a small group of close friends. In many ways he is a sad and lonely man. The problem with chasing the extreme in risk and physical adventure is that the solace it gives is ephemeral.’ No doubt Bonatti was very sad – but at the demise of the sport to which he had given so much. https://sweclimber.wordpress.com/climbing/stories/k2-bonatti […]

    • Well, from what I’ve heard from a close friend of Bonatti, it was not until recent years he managed to stop thinking and always bring up the infeted subject of K2. Still unti today, many of the local guides wouln’t accept him in their society.

      For me, Boniatti will always be remembered as one of my biggest climbing and mountaineering heroes. Also his humble way and attitude gave me the impression of a very fine man. May he rest in peace.

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